Undocumented status often a surprise to young immigrants

Wedged between a small office desk and an oil painting of two dismal-looking farm workers, two stuffed boxes overflow with the files of nearly 200 undocumented immigrants hoping to extend their stays.

One of those files contains the challenges facing Mayra Rubio.

When she was 16, Rubio never expected her name to be in that box. She never expected to be arrested outside U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor’s office in D.C. advocating for immigration reform. She never expected to shake the president’s hand later as a guest at the State of the Union Address.

Sitting in a South Dade High School driver’s education class eight years ago with the rest of her friends, all she expected to get was a driver’s license. Then her teacher pulled her aside to explain that she would not be getting her driver’s license because she did not have a Social Security number.

Even when her mother told her that night that Rubio was one of more than 11 million immigrants who entered the U.S. without documentation, Rubio’s first thought was still her license. Anger came later, and then fear.

“My first thought was, ‘oh man, I’m not going to be able to drive.’ Because that’s the main thing when you’re 16,” she said. “And then I started thinking about jobs.”

Rubio’s situation feels all too familiar to students across the nation who have discovered their undocumented status by bedsides, in front of computer screens, seated across from guidance counselors, or in line at the Division of Motor Vehicles.

When her parents disguised her as a boy to match the fake papers they carried from Guadalajara, Rubio was only three months old. The family settled in a vibrant orange house in Homestead, the same house where Rubio would discover the truth about her immigration status 16 years later.

“I remember I was angry,” Rubio said. “Even speaking about it makes me emotional because it was to me a rough time in my life. I was just angry, but not at her (her mom), just angry at my situation. I cried, she cried, it was bad. We didn’t speak for two days, but it wasn’t because I was upset at them, it was for the fact that I couldn’t believe that I was going through this.”
“I was just kind of angry that they called this the land of opportunity and they weren’t letting me pursue my dream,” Rubio said.

“I felt like I was being left behind.”

Undocumented immigrants often face psychological trauma when they begin to understand their precarious situation.

Rubio said she became depressed, avoiding social media sites. Her high school attendance became abysmal. While her friends left for college, Rubio began picking fruit for her parents’ produce stand. The experience initially was therapeutic. She enjoyed being outside and with her family, despite the latent tension between them.

Soon, however, Rubio realized that her parents had been hiding her for a completely different reason.

“One day when I was picking zucchini and squash, it was hot, it was so hot, and I was sweating, and my hair was in my face, and I just remember standing up, I looked over and saw my parents and I thought, ‘this is not what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,’” Rubio said. “I didn’t want them to feel like they came to this country for no reason. That’s where I decided I was going to start going to college, whether I had to pay $1,200 dollars a class or not.”

The clash between the new uncertainty of her future and her lifelong expectations was hard for Rubio to accept. She grew up feeling like an American citizen and had no memories for the first three months of her life in Mexico. One country tells her that she doesn’t belong, but the other doesn’t feel like home.

“This is home to me,” Rubio said. “I’ve known this all my life. What else am I going to call home?”

Before her discovery, Rubio had a “crazy dream” of one day attending Harvard University. She now attends Miami Dade College, and hopes to one day either study business or become an immigration lawyer – and she still has hopes for Harvard.

The issue lies not in her ability, but in her legal status and timing.

Though some colleges would allow Rubio to attend as an undocumented student, the income from her job, the produce stand owned by her parents, could not support out-of-state tuition.

With House Bill 851, which took effect July 1, many young undocumented Florida residents are guaranteed in-state tuition if they went to college at least two years after they graduated. Rubio waited four, but she found a way to get lower tuition through waivers from MDC.

From her moment of insight in a sweltering field picking vegetables, Rubio found the spirit to carry on with the support of others who taught her to accept her situation. Community activism became a cornerstone of Rubio’s refocus.

She now devotes her time to Homestead Equal Rights for All, a local advocacy group that petitions for immigration equality. Through traveling with the group and communicating with others in the region, Rubio has witnessed unforgettable pain.

“When you see a family being separated, when you see a wife, a mom, sitting outside a detention center not eating for four days, it changes the way you look at things,” Rubio said.

“You’re undocumented, some of us know, some of us didn’t know,” she said. “When I started organizing I felt like I was right at home, because I met so many people like me.”

Rubio’s options were limited – thanks to decisions made by other people. Despite this, she still has the utmost respect and love for her parents (with whom she still lives). One of her goals is to buy them the house of their dreams.

“My mom would want me to speak to her [about my feelings], but I wouldn’t,” Rubio said. “I think the big part is that I didn’t want her to feel guilty. I didn’t want her to feel like I was telling her she did bad in bringing me to this country, because I’ve honestly never felt that way.”

Regardless of the pain it caused her, Rubio understands her parent’s decision and the sacrifices they had to make.

“They were very poor in Mexico, so they wanted a better life for us, and that’s why they decided to come here,” Rubio said. “They wanted stability. They wanted to come here, get money, go back, and build a home, but we started growing up and they saw a better opportunity for our education here, and they stayed longer.”

Rubio’s culture puts emphasis on family, which influenced both the reason for their departure and the hesitation that surrounded the choice to stay. To ensure their child’s future, they had to leave their past.

“I’ve seen them struggle so much,” Rubio said. “My parents haven’t seen their parents for more than 10 years now, and they call about every day just to see how they’re doing. You see your parents cry, because their parents are sick and they can’t be there. It’s tough. Even though they send back money and they’re a little more financially stable now, that’s not going to pay for hugs, and kisses, and Christmases.

“And maybe if I didn’t go through this I wouldn’t really appreciate a driver’s license or a job or helping out my community. Everyone wants to be here and not struggle, but struggle has made me who I am.”

Rubio does not want a do-over.